Ever thought about becoming a Grandmaster?

I posted an article in the 65th Square segment on the process of becoming a Grandmaster. It is not an article about improving chess skills, but it details the process. Obviously you have to earn norms and this has its own set of challenges. I did not discuss norms in detail, but depending on your field (and playing three GMs) you have to score a minimum number of points.

The lowest average opposition for a GM norm is 2381. For a 9-round tournament, you would need 7/9 and have to play at least three Grandmasters. However, if you play in a round robin where the average opposition is 2600, you would need only 5/9. The stronger the opposition the fewer the points needed for a norm.

It’s much better to play in round robins, but open tournaments are more common. You generally have to have a 2600 performance rating and playing weaker opposition in open tournaments hurts your chances. There is a stipulation that the lowest two opponents’ ratings can be raised to 2250 to help norm chances.

The issue in all of this is finding the opportunities for GM norms. Generally you would have to travel to Europe, but the Middle East and Asia have been organizing strong tournaments in the past few years. America has the World Open, but generally opportunities are limited. This means that more creative organizing is needed.

Read, “How do I become a Grandmaster?


  1. Thanks for posting this – my students ask sometimes, and I can let them “find this on their own”. 🙂

  2. Daaim –

    What’s your take on the “nature vs. nurture” question when it comes to attaining the GM title. Does it require some kind of innate talent, meaning that your brain is literally wired for chess? Or is there a reliable roadmap, that any reasonably intelligent person can follow .. meaning pursuing the training with enormous passion, effective coaching, and most of all, years of hard work.

    You’ve seen a number of black players attain international titles through the years .. FM, IM and GM. What does it take?

  3. That’s a tough question. I would definitely lean toward nurture, but of course there has to be some basic wiring in place. 🙂 We can see that there are so many different types of people who have made GM and all have different levels of education, different temperments and diverse backgrounds. I would reject the nature question because it would imply that certain people may not be wired to play chess at a high level. A man from Venezuela asked me why there were not more Black GMs. He asked, “Are they smart enough?” This argument has been made before on white supremacist sites.

    Black titled players… interesting question. I wish I could speak from first-hand experience. It’s really tough because what I have seen has primarily boiled it down to resource requirements and norm opportunities. Every single titled player I know (of African descent) has mentioned lack of resources as an issue when I speak to them. How can they afford to travel when there is no support system?

    I remember when Maurice Ashley (then an FM) was having trouble getting his norm opportunities, Jerry Bibuld suggested he play for Jamaica’s Olympiad team. Ashley eschewed the idea and got his norms the best way he could. He bit the bullet and traveled a bit… I think he did Bermuda and Europe. We can see that Pontus Carlsson of Sweden benefitted greatly from his proximity and earned his IM and GM norms within a few years. However, living in Europe is simply not feasible for most of these players.

    Emory Tate and Stephen Muhammad became IMs not long ago. They’ve been playing for decades and both have been IM strength for a long time. Tate would easily be a GM if he had norm opportunities 20 years ago. William Morrison (two IM norms) and Pete Rogers (two IM norms) are in the same situations. All of these guys are in their 40s and get few opportunities to earn norms. Where were their norm chances coming from… primarily New York Open, World Open, U.S. Open and a few invitationals. The Wilbert Paige Memorial was interesting because Muhammad got a norm and both Morrison and Rogers were on the mark until the end.

    For African players, there are few chances, so many get norms through the African Championships (which may have 3-4 GMs playing). In the Olympiad getting norms are tough because top African players may not play enough GMs to get the required 2600 performance rating. Traveling to Europe is even more cost prohibitive for Africans since the exchange rate is a killer. Africa has to somehow attract strong players. Many strong GMs have traveled to Africa and if good conditions are offered, may agree to play in tournaments if they are well-organized.

    Watu Kobese had some quality training in Germany, but his immense talents did not flourish when he returned to South Africa. Gold medallist Robert Gwaze got few (if any) invites after his 9-0 Olympiad performance. He ended up in Malaysia after a stint in England. Amon Simutowe has done a bit better with the invitations and is one of the most widely-traveled players around. Currently, he is in the Netherlands, but he is making tremendous sacrifices at this time.

    I think there has to be more tournament organization as we’ve stated before. If players cannot travel, then they have to create opportunities in their own countries. If Bermuda and Curacao can do it, Black America, Jamaica, Nigeria and South Africa can do it.

  4. I agree. Your comments are a good addendum to your original article. From a practical standpoint, a player who has demonstrated strong potential, should go to Europe if possible. The norm opportunities are so much better, particularly if you can get into the First Saturday tournaments in Hungary.

    Doing so is certainly quite a investment, or sacrifice if you look at it that way. But if you’re young, perhaps just out of high school, or even undergrad, the timing might work out .. no spouse or kids, and a low “lifestyle” requirement. It’s easier to bum around the low rent way when you are young!

  5. The paradox is that you have to forgo schooling and if you are young, living abroad as a chess explorer can be very stressful if you don’t have a solid plan in place. I remember Sunil Weeramantry telling me that he had such a discussion with stepson Hikaru Nakamura. You see that many of the top young players were accompanied by at least one parent… Nakamura, Magnus Carlsen, Sergey Karjakin, Fabiano Caruana, Parimarjan Negi, etc. This helps keep the young minds from wondering and protects them from being exploited or cheated. I think in all of these cases each family had to make financial arrangements to travel around the world for weeks at a time. It is certainly not an easy choice if you feel you have talent.

  6. We will have to see what plan IM Ray Robson and his family will come up with since the USCF may not be able to provide much support. He has traveled to Europe already with his family. I definitely see him being a Samford Fellow, but how is this immense talent nurtured into a GM-level player?

  7. Dr. Kimani Stancil has shared with us on many occasions that his goal is to become a Grandmaster. I am starting to embrace that goal, but I have a long way to go. Thank you for clarifying the process. I find it refreshing that the top 16 in the World Championship are automatically conferred the title, this avoids all the politics and I think something similar should always be the rule, not the exception. A fair fight to see who’s on top, if you will. Also, what do you think of the idea that you should have to ‘maintain’ your title via strong results, just like a PGA Tour golf professional can ‘lose’ his Tour card if he does not produce results. Back to the PGA qualifying school. Many professional accreditations often require periodic recertification or ongoing development credits achieved to maintain the ‘title’. If norms don’t expire, I presume titles don’t expire either, but is this right?

  8. For me, my goals are more modest… a 2300 ELO and the FM title. The GM dreams were never there for me… started chess too late. The effort I would have spent in chess went toward my schooling… finally the Ph.D. Perhaps for Dr. Kimani it’s different. He may be able to balance his teaching/research with fatherhood and a tournament schedule for norms. He’s very talented, but as a new father, I’m sure he’ll be shooting for Grandmaster norms in fathering! 🙂

    On the serious side, pursuit of the GM title is an all-encompassing task, but players like Emory Tate, Watu Kobese, Amon Simutowe, Kimani and young players like Kayin Barclay would need lots of help. There has to be a structure to organize norm tournaments in the country they live. That way they will not have to travel around the world and bear great expense.

    Currently, GM titles do not expire. My personal belief is that GM titles should be for life. As I stated on the Drum Major list, National Masters may have gone under 2200, but they still have a lot to offer in terms of what it took to reach such a level. That should be respected and honored.

    In golf, you lose your card and no one may never know you’ve reached a high level. Carrying a GM title carries weight and should be a lifetime accomplishment. In chess everyone knows that America’s Arthur Bisguier plays only for fun these days, but in the 1950s he was a strong Grandmaster. I don’t believe FIDE would do chess a service if they took away one’s contributions by taking their title.

  9. Yes, Daaim has described my task correctly!!! Given the
    economic/physical efforts necessary to achieve a GM title,
    there is no way it should expire – however, I do like the one
    shot approach for titles if your play vastly exceeds your rating.
    Based on recent struggles for new GM-elects and IM-elects to
    raise their rating to the required 2500 or 2400 FIDE for the titles
    when these talents have previously achieved the required number
    of norms is a clear problem. In short, the rules(or mathematics) do
    not match the circumstance. I strongly believe if you make the
    required number of norms or you exceed that number as noted in
    IM Stephen Muhammad’s case, that you should be awarded the
    title in question. The rating is a physical, social, economic, and
    psychological drawback to the title pursuits. Minimally, I think that
    norm performances should result in additional rating boosts, that
    take in account the difference between the required rating for the
    title, and the player’s current rating prior to the norm performance.

    Kimani A. Stancil

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